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  • Poetry, Politics, and the Body in Rimbaud: Lyrical Material by Robert St. Clair
  • Joseph Acquisto
Poetry, Politics, and the Body in Rimbaud: Lyrical Material. By Robert St. Clair. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. xi + 271 pp., ill.

In this important contribution to Rimbaud studies, Robert St. Clair moves fluidly among cultural studies, critical theory, intertextuality, and close readings to provide a focused yet wide-ranging consideration of the historical and political valences of the representation of bodies in Rimbaud’s lyric poetry. His goal is to demonstrate the way close reading intersects with historical engagement and ‘poetic politics’ (p. 8). Each chapter is inspired by a single poem around which the author constructs a complex, multifaceted analysis. Chapter 1 uses ‘Sensation’ as a point of entry into Rimbaud’s relation to Théodore de Banville, arguing that the poem participates in ‘a critical, if not utopian, nineteenth-century lyric — one articulating a desire for [ . . .] a geo/topography where things are [ . . .] very far from whatever alienating social environment it is that gives us Monsieur Prudhomme’ (p. 50). Chapter 2 uses ‘Les Effarés’ to explore the way in which Rimbaud and others of his generation ‘simultaneously undermine, dismantle, and parody the “pensive” [ . . .] humanism without content — of pity without a shared or common sense of humanity’ (p. 93) that one finds in poets such as Hugo, François Coppée, or Arsène Houssaye. ‘Les Effarés’ is ultimately ‘a poem about the meaning of disorder in poetic social vision’ (p. 111). ‘Au cabaret vert, cinq heures du soir’ is the focus of Chapter 3, which establishes the cabaret as a political space where ‘the question of leisure and the normalcy of work, the naturalness of class difference in everyday life, found itself debated and ridiculed, politicized and, indeed, sometimes suspended’ (p. 142). The notion of utopia returns here in the context of a close reading of the poem wherein St. Clair demonstrates that ‘it is in the rhythmic texture of stops and sputters, in the débordements of uncontainable lines spilling over each other, that the poem’s [ . . .] micro-utopian narrative about what human existence could be, comes to life’ (p. 133). Chapter 4 focuses on ‘Le Forgeron’, whose titular character is ‘legible as a stand-in for the poète-voyant who takes as the point of departure for arriving at a new form of poetry an (un)working on the self that Rimbaud will dub “encrapulation” — both intoxication [ . . .] and the descent into that subject of unregenerate social negation and revolutionary potential par excellence, the crapule’ (p. 168). The poem is ‘about the materiality of history, about the (potential) disruptive or redescriptive effects that history [ . . .] may produce in the present’ (p. 170). Chapter 5 takes up parody once more, demonstrating that ‘Le Sonnet du trou du cul’ is ‘a writing of the body in its scandalous delights and social impossibility that is also a reflection on the situation of poetry [ . . .] in the aftermath of the Commune, one that seeks to take poetry itself in irreverently revolutionary directions’ (p. 210). The book’s chapters, taken together, admirably and compellingly demonstrate the ways in which ‘Rimbaud’s theory of poetic voyance doubles as a poetic politics, as a mode of participation in the struggles of the present, a mode of opposition to what passes in History for the inevitable’ (p. 183). Rimbaud’s bodies are, on St. Clair’s account, social and historical; the book insightfully maps the way those bodies are represented in poetic and historical space.

Joseph Acquisto
University of Vermont


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